Trust in mainstream political leaders is at an all-time low. With considerable justification. Unfortunately some of the alternatives that people have chosen to latch onto are considerably worse.
Closing the populist’s playbook
The standard tactic of people like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson is to tell lies that they think their voters want to hear, to promise things that they have no intention of actually delivering and to try to manipulate the system so that it is easier for them to win regardless of what the majority actually want. Insults aimed towards the opposition and a lot of expensive social media posts form an equally important part of the mix.
It is tempting for more mainstream politicians to copy the playbook and use some of the same tricks. That is a huge mistake. You cannot defeat untrustworthy political charlatans by adopting their tactics.
What is actually necessary is to undertake decades of hard work to reconnect with the communities that you wish to represent. In the early days of the Labour Party it had some brilliant activists who lived amongst working class communities and dedicated their whole lives to providing better schools, better health care and better housing for people whose lives they thoroughly understood. One of the reasons the modern Green Party has done so well at recent local elections is that it has relied on candidates who have done exactly that in their own community.
At risk: the principle of free and fair elections
Any political party worth voting for should know what it stands for and be prepared to stand up for what is right whatever the short-term costs. That earns respect. Depending on a focus group to tell you what is convenient to believe this week doesn’t. It is hardly surprising if the public doesn’t respect a politician if they feel that they don’t have any real values that they hold onto. When a politician truly belongs to the community and is prepared to voice its best interests with genuine knowledge and conviction then it is hard for even the most expensively funded media attack to undermine years of trust.
In the run up to the local elections in May there have been some almost comical attempts by political parties to try and build that sense of belonging. Many Conservatives have been rebranding themselves as Local Conservatives in a desperate attempt to distance themselves from the party that gave us the Liz Truss mortgage rises and queues of coaches and lorries at Dover. Some of them have even gone so far as to completely copy the Green Party’s leaflet layout with identical colours and font styles in a desperate attempt to disguise their true brand.
Their true attitudes towards the electorate have been revealed in sharp focus by their attempts to manipulate their way out of a bad defeat by removing the right to vote from a lot of young people. The voting rules now say that a pensioner can vote if they turn up with a travel card to prove who they are whilst an 18-year-old cannot use almost identical documentation. That is utterly cynical betrayal of the principle of free and fair elections. It moves their once mainstream party into the gutter of attempting to cling onto power by cheating.
Integrity matters to the electorate
Labour have made their own mistakes. Putting out an accusation on twitter that Rishi Sunak wants to go easy on child molesters is about as low as gutter politics gets. If their election team seriously thinks making obviously daft and nasty accusations like this is in their long term best interests then they haven’t been talking to enough ordinary people. Cheap attack politics don’t build trust they help to destroy it because the other side can be relied upon to go even lower with a lot more access to friends in the media.
The only way a left wing party can overcome the built in bias against it in the media is by being more honest and trustworthy than the others. Dissembling and trying to hide your real views rarely convinces voters. Does anyone really think a red wall Brexit enthusiast is persuaded by Labour’s quiet acceptance that the deed is done and can’t be undone?
In going after a few votes in red wall seats a great deal of votes end up being lost in constituencies that depend on jobs that have been put at risk by Brexit. Over 55% of the nation now think Brexit is a mistake whilst 32% think it has been a success. Has five years of dithering and changing position really helped Labour or would a bit of honesty with the electorate have produced better results?
Politicians who stay silent about their real beliefs are easy to see through and hard to trust. We need a new approach with more people who are prepared to face down the myths of the far right rather than cave into them.
People respect politicians who have principles but they also respect ones who are able to be honest when they disagree with their own political party or agree with what is being said by someone who chooses to represent a different group. A politician who changes their mind or takes an individual stand shouldn’t be seen as a problem. They should be seen as a strength.
Placing genuine representation above focus groups
In normal life people change their mind all the time. It is called learning. Being flexible. Open minded independent thinking. We can’t expect to win back trust if we claim to know everything about every issue and to never make mistakes or rethink an approach. The best way for a politician to connect with people is to drop any pretence that they are different from the rest of us and to engage in normal open minded conversations that involve as much listening as talking.
Whilst politics is handed down to us from above and is something that is done to us by outside experts it will always be vulnerable to being undermined by well funded cynics who are good at manipulating sound bites. Change has to be built from below on the basis of genuine representation and real honesty about what you actually stand for and what you believe.
That is why local elections matter. Every local councillor who takes the trouble to find out what is needed locally and tries their best to deliver it day in day out throughout their period of office helps rebuild trust in democracy. Every one who relies on a focus group to tell them what message to pump down to the masses this week makes it easy for the Trumps of this world to exploit cynicism and contributes to declining standards.
On 4 May I suggest you vote for a candidate that represents what you genuinely believe is best for your local area. The only way to get a person elected that you respect is to vote for them.